Cabin Build Update #1

We went out to the property on Saturday. Ostensibly, to stake out the cabin and to deliver two water barrels and some bags of gravel for our impending ground breaking of the cabin. (Picture of the water barrels shown below, on the trailer.) The actual breaking ground had to be postponed due to some hurdles we are trying to overcome with digging equipment. We were going to do some test digging on this trip, so that we could get a better idea of what we need to use for digging the holes for the piers.

Anyway, we headed out around 8am. It’s about a 4 hr drive from where we live in Gilbert, AZ. It was a beautiful sunshiny day. What could go wrong? Right?

We got to the turn off from the highway, where we turn onto the dirt road that goes back to our property. You should know that the ever present enemy in these parts is mud. It’s not regular mud. Imagine mud mixed in with a healthy portion of glue. That’s what the mud is like in this part of AZ. So you have to time your trips so that there is a decent amount of time that separates your trip from the last moisture event. It had been 3 days since the last moisture event and in these parts (because it’s so dry here), that is typically PLENTY of time.

Or so we thought. Snow is a different animal than rain.

The snow from three days earlier was getting a bit deeper as we approached the property. So, even though the road was passable (muddy but not impassable), in the back of my mind I was thinking we were toast. The residual snow on the ground was MUCH heavier the further we got out of nearest town (St. Johns.) The ground was more than 50% covered by snow still (not a dusting, but inches) and it was only getting worse as we approached the property.

Midway into the ranch (where our lot is one of dozens of other lots), there is a part of the road that has washed out to the point where there was a large channel (we call them “washes” here in AZ) that goes across the road. I had forgotten it was there and it was really muddy in that location so I took a run at it so as to get through it without getting bogged down in the mud.


We hit that thing so hard I thought for sure our axle would snap. I looked back in my mirror at the trailer and I see our two blue 30 gallon barrels full of water, bounce up off the trailer about 3 feet and then come crashing back down. Luckily they stayed on the trailer. But the damage was done. Turns out it bent the axle of the BRAND NEW utility trailer and now the driver side wheel is canted outward on the bottom. It still rolls okay, but I’ll have to have it checked out.

As we continued to drive, my fears were definitely warranted. We got deeper into the ranch and realized we probably made a very large mistake and wasted an entire day for nothing. By the time we got to our lot, the trailer tires were pretty much caked with mud. My SUV tires were okay, but mud was EVERYWHERE else. Even though we made it to the entrance of our property, there was NO WAY we were going to be able to drive onto it from the dirt access road. We don’t have a road cleared and compacted yet. So we’d have gotten stuck up to our axles almost immediately.

What to do?

This trip was to drop off two 30 gallon barrels of water and 36 bags of crush rock (for the bottom of the cabin footings). So, the trailer was HEAVY. And we absolutely had to drop this off because I needed more room for the next trip to bring cement bags…etc.


So here we are on the road in front of the lot. Can’t go onto the property. Can’t very well just leave stuff here on the side of the road. So we decide to go back to the real estate office in the town (the company that sells the lots on the ranch where we bought our property.) We’d drop off our bags and barrels behind the office and then retrieve them again when we come back with the other stuff.

But how to turn around. Hmmm…

We didn’t actually get to our lot line. We got to the driveway of our neighbor right before our lot. So there is a flat area in front of his driveway that we could use a little bit of before we hit the chain that blocked anyone from driving up his access road. So I backed up into it, right up to the chain. But we have a 12′ trailer and an SUV. So, of course, I’m going to have to drive into the opposite ditch to get it all turned around. And OF COURSE, the mud is so soft and deep that the tires can’t grip enough to turn the vehicle. The weight of the vehicle just drove us deeper into the ditch and berm on the other side.

So I had to just go into the ditch and berm (actually straddling it, with the left tire more on the road and the right tire on the berm, with the ditch in the middle. I just kept moving (sliding every which way, with everyone holding their breathe) and pulled the trailer about 50 feet until there was an area where the ditch kind of became more even with the road. At which point, I could pull it all over to the left, onto the road, through sheer momentum.

We drove back to St. Johns, dropped off our stuff behind the real estate office and headed home with the proverbial tail behind our legs.

And THAT was our lovely day at the ranch.

Off Grid Advice – Expert Opinions

Shows where our new mini cabin location will be compared to the main cabin spot and I threw in the zip line location so you can see that too.

If you check out our Facebook page (link on our front page), you’ll see I posted some photos and videos of the property yesterday. We took a trip during the holiday weekend.

The main reason for the trip was to consult with someone (Ken) who knows a lot about the area, about building stuff, about the land, and water and sewage and, well… he’s just knowledgeable.

We’ve had 3 different spots in mind for the mini cabin and what we finally came up with was yet another spot. Best laid plans….

Some things I’ve determined based on my consult with Ken, are:

  1. I need to place the pier footings about 30 inches down, just to be on the safe side from a frost heave perspective. He said 18″ to 24″ would be fine. And my piers will be well within the interior of the home’s imaginary borders and I’ll be cladding the underside of the cabin with materials that will help to trap heat under the house. All that combined probably means I could go even shallower. But I’ll probably put about 6″ of pea gravel in a 30″ hole so the pier blocks will rest at the 24″ level. With that, I’ll be confident we’ll have absolutely no problems with front heave.
  2. A septic system is just out of the question. He said it’ll probably cost around $5K. Heck, that’s probably about half what the entire cabin is going to cost. I’m not going to spend that on a septic system. That’s just crazy. So, compost toilet it is. I’ve been reading a LOT on this topic and have come to the conclusion that the Humanure system is simply the best and most simple (and cheapest) system to compost human waste. I bought the book and it is quite detailed in what you need to do in order for the system to work well (with no smell…etc.) If you can weed through the sanctimonious “save the world” speeches, it does have some good practical information.
  3. A well is also out of the question. Ken said if he had to take a guess, he’s say we’d find water around 300 ft down. That translates into about $10K. Again, that’s just crazy when it falls free from the sky. Even if we had to truck in all our water, we wouldn’t hit $10K of usage for 4 or 5 years. And I’m pretty sure we can get about 50% to 100% of our water needs from the sky. (We’ll see what that ends up being.)
  4. Rocks are no problem. Ken said he wouldn’t be too concerned with rock slides on our hill. He said, at the most, just put up a retaining wall to block some more worrisome rocks in the event one becomes dislodged. But the slope is such that even if one came down, it would come down fairly slowly. But with where we’re going to put the the mini cabin, there is really no rock danger anyway. So, the question was mainly for any fort activity we build for the kids, into the hillside, than for the cabin.
  5. Great building season. The part of Arizona our land is in has a year ’round building season. He said the first frost doesn’t come until around mid Oct and it’s mostly really nice weather all the way through Thanksgiving. Even the winters, although can be a little cold, are not bad at all for building. Very little moisture to get in the way…etc. So, that’ll be nice to not be hampered for months on end due to the weather. That is completely different than where we moved from, in Oregon. Ha!

So I have many of my preliminary questions out of the way. My blueprints are at the drafter’s office. He’s tweaking the plans to my specifications. Once we get that finalized, it’s off to the county for a permit. That will take about 3 weeks, give or take. Then I hope to be breaking ground in mid Oct.

Allison wants to spend Christmas at the cabin. I have some work cut out for me. Ha!

Picture above gives you an idea of where our mini cabin will be (the newly picked spot) compared to where the main cabin will be built. Bonus points… I drew where our zip line will go, too. Just for the fun of it. The zip line will go from about 100 ft above that valley to about 40 feet. It’ll definitely be a heart pumper. (BTW.. this drawing is not to scale. The cabins will appear smaller if they were actually in the pictures.)

Mini Cabin Placement

I took a trip to the ranch yesterday. It was dicey getting in, but got there eventually. (I posted a video of what I was contending with on our Facebook page. If you haven’t gone there to “LIKE” it yet, please do. Go now and then come back to finish reading this post.)

I also tested our cell booster kit, to see if the cell phone would get a better reception. In short, it didn’t. I was very frustrated at that outcome. However, I have a way of getting it higher (elevation) than what I tested yesterday and there is a directional antenna that I can get, too. (The one I tested is an omni-directional one.) So, all is not lost. But it is definitely a disappointment.

I found 3 potential mini cabin sites on the property. (Well, I found more than that, but I have settled on 3 that we’ll choose from.)

Here are my main criteria, not necessarily in order of importance:

  1. South facing without losing some sort of view.
  2. Can the car reach the cabin without having to move tons of rocks?
  3. Is the drainage proper for that spot without a lot of drainage work?
  4. Can it even be built in that spot without having to move a ton of rocks?
  5. Is it easily accessible to the “farm” area that we’ll be building?
  6. Can we install solar and propane services within close proximity?
  7. Does it have a great view?
  8. Can it be defended easily against the inevitable zombie wars?

The reason I have not selected the site yet is because I really have to talk to someone who knows what they’re looking at (an engineer) to see what spot makes the most sense given all my criteria above.

Here is a flickr page with all the pictures I took yesterday. Be sure to read the descriptions below the pictures to get a sense of where you are on the property (if that’s possible.) The dirt pictures are so I can talk to someone about whether a pier and beam foundation will suffice and how deep they recommend going down for the piers.

Side note… I have all the stuff I need to experiment with my rainwater catchment ideas. I’ll be posting some pictures of that soon.

Another side note… I’ve started a spreadsheet to track my costs for this project. So far I’ve spent $610 and have absolutely nothing to show for it yet. Grumble, grumble. 🙂

Okay… go LIKE our Facebook page and tell your friends, too. Share it on your timeline if you think your friends would be interested in following our journey. Thanks!

You Had Me at Chickens!

Post from Allison…

Once Daniel and I realized that the cabin plan could really work, we had to talk about it with the kids. We asked Haley (our oldest), “What do you think about building a cabin on our property and living in it for a year?”. She thought about it for a minute and said “OK”. Not really enthusiastic, but not negative either. Then we started talking about how we would live off the land as much as we could, including having a few chickens. From that point on she turned off her music, pulled out her headphones and she was all in. “CHICKENS????? I CAN HAVE CHICKENS????” She was hooked. I guess the move to Arizona last year would have been easier for her if only we had promised some chickens in the deal!

Zoe was a little less interested, but she followed Haley’s lead and warmed up to the idea the more they talked about the chickens. In the following 3 days we added a goat and some bunnies to the mix. The bunnies are for pets, not for food. We learned our lesson in Oregon that bunnies don’t belong in a suburban garage, so while we live out at the cabin we agreed the girls could each have a bunny or two. For Zoe it was sweetening the pot and it worked.

For the rest of our trip this move was pretty much the only topic of conversation. The kids loved talking about their bedroom (they want to share), looking at the spot on the land that we’ve picked for the cabin, discussing chicken coops and bunny food and hikes with Phinny. One morning at breakfast I reviewed all of the things we’d done this summer: day-long pool parties with friends, a trip to Oregon, several summer camps, a trip with the cousins and several trips to the property. I asked both Haley and Zoe to name their favorite part of the summer- the activity that they’d like to do more of next time. Both of them named the trips to the property as their favorite parts of the summer. Later that day I snapped the picture of the girls (above) at our Holey Cave near the top of our property and texted it to my mom. She responded that they both looked so content. I guess there’s just something about the place that feels good for all of us.

PS: In case you are wondering, here are the names they have chosen for the animals so far: GOAT: Tony Stark; CHICKENS: Mrs Doubtfire, Pepper Pots, Mr. Clucks, Mrs Clucks, Mrs Marvel; BUNNIES: Nemo, Om Nom. All of these are subject to change as we see more movies in the next year, I guess. Frankly I’m surprised we haven’t named something Katy Perry yet.

Home Plans are Gibberish

We got the blueprints for the 14′ x 24′ cabin.

Yikes, on a stick!!

Now I know why people don’t build their own houses. Ha! I can’t make heads nor tails of the plans. So I guess that means I have to actually work at this project.


Fortunately, I do have some friends that can point me in the right direction. And of course, I could just wing it, too. Going off of common sense.

“Umm… yeah, that looks like it goes there.”

Okay… I’m going to try to stay away from that method. It probably doesn’t work all that well.

It appears my next trip to the ranch is going to be Wednesday the 22nd. This trip will be to test the cell booster and to scope out where the mini cabin will be going. I know where the main cabin is going, but haven’t been to the property since we’ve decided to do a mini cabin first. There are many places it could go, so I have to figure out the BEST place.

Meanwhile, I’ve been getting quotes on stone veneer for the outside walls. Not cheap, but I can’t seem to settle for regular siding. Perhaps my “all or nothing” DNA can be altered so as to accept the notion of the mini cabin having regular siding. As we get closer to that step, I’ll reassess. Same with my desire to have concrete roofing tiles. They look amazing, but again… pricey. Argh!!!

One of my first big decisions is what type of post foundation I’ll need to have. I haven’t quite figured out what the frost line is in that area. So I’m not sure how far to dig my post footers. I’m going to stop at the courthouse again and try to talk with one of the building code people to see what he/she says. It would be WAY cool if I could just put it on the ground, flush (I mean the concrete block piers, then a post on top of those.) With just some crushed gravel under them for proper drainage. Another owner I know over at Woodland Valley Ranch (neighboring ranch lands to ours) put hers at grade level, so I’m hoping that we can do ours that way, too. I’m thinking ours is going to be built on a slight slope, so I have to figure that out, too. That shouldn’t impact the decision for the footers, though.

Oh, I got a book called “DIY Projects for the Self Sufficient Homeowner” that goes over all kinds of nifty projects that you can do around the house to make your household a bit more independent. I’ll report more on it as I take on some of the projects.

Things are continuing to move forward. Yeah!



Impulsive, Decisive, Tomato, Tomahto!

Hi. This is Allison. Daniel’s wife. Thanks for taking an interest in our grand adventure. I’ll be a guest blogger from time to time. But you’ll notice that I blog about the “softer” side of this adventure. Daniel can research power and water and toilets but I’m all about the emotions and the process for setting off on the challenge.

As a couple, Daniel and I are frequently labeled “decisive,” which is a polite way of saying “impulsive.” I would agree we are on that scale, but somewhere in between the two adjectives. With this decision to build a cabin and live off-grid, however, it wasn’t as impulsive as you might think. For a while now, Daniel has taken an interest in and learned more about the “prepper” movement – the process of being prepared in the event of a worldwide event that would require everyone to fend for themselves for much longer than most people ever could. So we bought some land in Eastern Arizona last May. At the very least it would be a good place to go hiking and camping and an escape from the heat of the valley.

We moved to Arizona from Oregon in July of 2011. Having lived in our current rented house for one year already and with one year left on our lease, just last week we decided this house wasn’t for us and we’d most likely be moving at the end of the lease. Although we love the school and the neighborhood, the 2 neighbors that we know and our proximity to shops and restaurants, the house itself isn’t where we want to live for the longer term. This part of town, yes. This house, no.

As we set off on our trip to Eastern Arizona last Saturday, I was in a funk about having to move yet again and settle in somewhere new, with all the adjustments and uncertainties that come with a house move. We were driving down the road, only a day into our 4-day trip when Daniel innocently asked me “Can you imagine how much money we’d save on housing costs if we built a cabin on our property and lived in it for a year with no rent or mortgage?”. I found that I couldn’t really come up with a good answer for why that wouldn’t work.

In the last several years we had frequently talked about giving the kids some kind of unique living experience. When I was in 7th grade I lived in Spain with my family for almost 6 months. When Daniel was in 4th grade he lived up in the Sierra Nevada mountains and dredged for gold, living in a tent for an entire summer. We both recall those experiences as some of the most memorable parts of our childhoods. They were not always wonderful and they both involved a lot of adjustment, but without a doubt they changed us and made us appreciate what we had.

We knew we wanted to give that kind of life experience to our kids, although up until this point we’d always talked about doing it in another country. But with the lease being up in a year, the property being one of our favorite places to spend time and the plans we had to build a cabin eventually anyway… well, it just made sense.

My trip to Spain and my time spent as an exchange student in Ecuador, coupled with my working for one of the biggest high school exchange student outfits in the world for 13 years… all of those experiences are lending me a measure of psychological support as I contemplate yet another major change that feels like it’s coming so soon after the last one.

I’ve told many people that moving to Arizona has really brought our family closer together. We weather the “storms” together, being somewhat isolated (initially) in our new community as we all got to know new people. Moving to our property will really be another exciting chapter in our family’s life. When we lived in Oregon I would not have said that we needed to grow closer, but as I see that actually happening, it makes me very happy and grateful we stepped out on faith and removed ourselves from our tidy little box.

At dinner last night we were arranging chop sticks and napkins, sharing our ideas of how the kids’ bunk rooms could be arranged with multiple bunks for maximum capacity to hold guests when our friends and family come for visits. Our 10 year old, Haley, submitted her ideas in the form a drawing on her iPhone (below). I guess that means she’s invested?

I love that we are all working on this project together as a family, and I know it’s a drop in the bucket of what’s to come. Can’t wait to share it with you all.


PS: Next post… CHICKENS!!!

The Show Stopper List

First a side note… please comment on any of my posts if you have a suggestion or information that I can use regarding the topic of the post. I would love to utilize the talent and knowledge of my readers. I’m not proud. Ha!

Boy. The list of things to do to get this process started is lengthy. I’m prioritizing them and researching options.

First thing to do is to see if there are going to be any major hurdles that stop this process. Hate to get half way in, spend a LOT of money, and then realize, “Oops… that’s a show stopper. Can’t move forward.” Would HATE for that to happen.

The list of things I’m trying to make sure are covered before moving forward is:

1) Safety (the safety of my children against varmints is paramount. Hence the rattlesnake and mountain lion questions I’ve posed to fellow land owners near our ranch.)

2) High speed internet (if I don’t have this, I’m toast.)

3) Consistent cell service (not AS important as internet, but still necessary.)

4) Cost of the “can’t do without” stuff (if I have to spend $100K for the power, water and septic… then we might as well hang it up now.)

Regarding safety, I’ve looked into life flight options, 911 and the nearest ambulance response…etc. I feel confident that we can get someone to medical attention well within 1 hour, which is kind of the cut off for safe snakebite care. That coupled with the very low chances of a snakebite happening (and almost no chance of seeing a mountain lion) and proper education for my girls, I think we can move past that particular show stopper. (Allison, my wife, on the other hand, has been overly fretting about that issue. But I wouldn’t expect anything less. She’s a mom.)

I’m looking into cell booster kits that can bring in a weak cell signal and make it stronger, for the internet and cell issue.

I’m also looking into satellite internet service. Pricey, but having two ways to connect (cell and satellite) will give me some peace of mind.

Looking into the various septic solutions for off grid living. So far, we have compost, incinerator and traditional septic tank. There are pluses and minuses to each. Any pro and con advice on this would be appreciated.

Water is probably the most important problem yet the easiest to solve. For normal living (where the President is sane and the nation hasn’t gone to hell in a hand basket where we have to fend for ourselves), you just plop a tank down somewhere and have water trucked in by the thousands of gallons and call it a day. Use some solar heating for the hot water…etc. However, if the SHTF (term used by preppers to denote that the feces has hit the fan and chaos reigns), then the water solution becomes an issue. That’s why I’ll work on having a rainwater catchment back up plan, but that can be done AFTER we move in. Not a high priority.

Then we come to what is probably the most expensive and potentially weakest link in our plan to move off grid. The power issue. This requires some very good decision making because every solution is most likely your biggest investment and you don’t want to choose incorrectly. There are 4 options, of which all or various combinations of each, can be selected. We have solar (PV), wind, propane and generator. All feeding into a battery system. And the generator can be run by propane or diesel (regular gas isn’t really a smart decision for off grid gensets, so that’s not being considered.) For this choice, I have to consult some experts which I am LOATHE to do since experts typically cost money. And I love keeping money in my hands and hate giving it to others. I’m funny that way. Ha!

So, those are the current hurdles I’m dealing with. If you have a super drug that will allow me to jump over my hurdles in a single bound, feel free to share it. 🙂

Meantime, I’m pressing onward…